Saturday 16 August 2008

The rat episode

It wouldn’t have surprised me if the rat had been a hallucination. I’d found myself to be an unpleasantly hard taskmaster and had driven my body to a state of exhaustion. The sailing that day had been hard, every sorely earned mile, clawed form the light headwind and contrary swell, jealously guarded so that no rest could be permitted for fear of losing even a few metres of ground.

I’d gone to sea the day before with an open mind about my destination, prepared to let conditions dictate and to be satisfied with just being on the sea. But the previous day’s excellent run up to Barcelona with a brisk quartering breeze had seen 41 miles gobbled up in 11 hours opening up the possibilities of achieving some real distance on this trip.

I’d scarcely dared admit that secretly I was thinking of France. An image of myself sitting under an Orangina umbrella sipping Pernod and smoking a Gauloise had grown large in my head and now the taskmaster was using it as a carrot to wave before me. And so I’d rowed on and on into the wind’s eye, under a punishing sun, making barely one knot, until, at three o’clock, I could hear the juices simmering round my brain and feel a cold, unhealthy nausea spreading from my stomach. I was cooked and at last the seaman ousted the taskmaster, took up the chart, pinpointed shelter under our lee, bore away under plain sail urging fresh water down my throat and within an hour had dropped the anchor, dived to check that it had dug in, rigged an awning, fed me lush peaches, made my bed and lain me down with instructions not to stir till the sky blushed in the west.

After a light but restorative sleep I cooked rice and onions in the cool evening and thought of the night before in the small fisherman’s harbour of the Marbella in Barcelona, where my friend Paco and I, having finished off a quality tin of confit du canard and a bottle of Rioja, had sat in a high state of grease extolling small boat living.

Pessimistic fishermen had warned me not to spend the night tied to the few tyres on the crumbling quay—the place was rife with vandals, drunks and rats, I’d be robbed or have rubbish thrown on me or someone would pee in the boat. They painted a sorry picture of Barcelona’s seafront at night and, as Paco weaved homeward, I acted on their advice moving out to a buoy then taking a line ashore as there wasn’t room to swing. I bedded down under the bright lights of the city, the rumble of traffic and the thumping music from a beach bar making a fitting lullaby.

And now I bedded down in Mataró, again with ranks of orange lights around me. I soon fell into a deep sleep softly rocked by a maternal OB, bobbing slowly round her anchor. The seaman raised his head every hour, got his bearings, checked the wind and the sky and that all was well. At one point, hearing a rhythmic squeaking, he was perplexed but eventually decided that it was the anchor rode rubbing the deadeye on the bow as OB gently tugged at her mooring.

In the quiet hour before dawn and from the depths of sleep I felt a silky caress on my forearm. The sort of caress that, in slumber, I might associate with a maiden clad only in moonbeams come to give succour to the weary mariner. Being the sort of person that, when feeling an insect crawling up the ankle, doesn’t immediately swat but rather, out of curiosity, has a peek and often gets bitten as a result, I slowly raised my lids to see a rat silhouetted against the lights of the city.

I was on my feet in a flash, the boat rocking wildly beneath me. The echo of an involuntary scream hung in the air and a few fishermen that had been dozing at their rods on the mole gazed over.

I’d been sleeping with my head at the stern and now I saw that the hatch to the fore locker was open. I’d seen the rat dash forward and hide behind the anchor bag. Before the stowaway could regain its shelter I sprang forward to shut the locker and the rodent darted to the stern and hid behind my life jacket.

And so the situation stood: I sat on the forward deck and Master Rat, for he was young, occupied the area behind the aft thwart. With the adrenaline subsiding I took stock. There was a dull throbbing from my heel and a glance showed that I’d torn it and was leaking blood into the bilges. I marshalled my thoughts, I needed a weapon, I took up an oar, it was too big for ejecting rats and I put it down and looked over at my small but curious audience on the mole. ‘Una rata.’ I explained. There was no reply but one man lit a cigarette and blew an unhelpful cloud of smoke towards me.

Calmer now, I bizarrely felt a tenderness for my brave young stowaway, who, starry eyed with tales of the Mediterranean, had hidden himself aboard in a bid to escape the tough city life. But no, I said to myself, forget it. This is no riverbank and that’s no plummy-toned water rat aboard simply for the pleasures of messing about in boats. It is a hard-nosed, seedy, harbour rat aboard for my victuals and a possible threat to my voyage and, puffing myself up I moved aft taking up each piece of kit as I came upon it and placing it behind me.

I knew that I had lost the greater part of my resolve along with the adrenaline during that long pause and with genuine apprehension I crossed the central thwart and continued aft. Soon only the life jacket remained, I paused again, I had to make a decisive move otherwise I could be chasing the rat round the boat all night. I whipped up the life jacket. No rat. I shook the life jacket overboard. Nothing fell. I rummaged forward. No rat, no rodent, no stowaway.

I stared across the water and, using all the imagination I could bring to bear, made out a diminutive wake heading towards the mole. But I could never be sure that the rat had really left, or, for want of solid proof, that he'd really been aboard. And for the rest of the voyage I half expected him to reappear.

It was only when I reached home and was clearing out the boat that I found definitive evidence of his short sojourn aboard OB in the form of a turd, planted with precision in the corner where the mast step meets the forward frame.

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